RB Ryan Mathews (Gregory Bull/AP)
A.J. Smith, the Chargers' dour and gruff general manager, is done talking about Marcus McNeill, Vincent Jackson and Shawne Merriman. Those three players, who account for a combined six Pro Bowl selections, haven't signed their contracts.
Smith's role in these negotiations is a point for discussion. He went the hardball route on McNeill and Jackson, slashing their tender offers by nearly $2.5 million. Smith has dug in his heels, drawn a line in the sand -- pick your cliche and Smith will sign off on it.
There were reports there was some movement in talks with McNeill, the massive left tackle whose responsibility is among the biggest on the team: keep $92 million quarterback Philip Rivers in one piece. But Smith shot that speculation down.
Jackson, like McNeill, has said it's possible he won't report until the season's final six weeks. But his situation is even more clouded than McNeill, as he is facing a three-game suspension from the NFL after being convicted for his second driving under the influence charge.
Merriman's stance, he said, is more about his lack of commitment from the Chargers than the dollar figures on his one-year deal. Merriman complained that he doesn't feel wanted by the Chargers; that he is tired of constantly being on the trading block; that he wants a defense built around him.
"It was very disappointing to hear Shawne's demands and desires regarding the Chargers," Smith told the media. "But it certainly is his right to voice them. We will not guarantee him that he won't be traded. That is not in the best interest of the organization."
The Chargers would love, in some ways, for Merriman to be the focal point of the defense. But the truth is the player who wrecked havoc on the NFL and was named to the Pro Bowl in his first three seasons - that Shawne Merriman - hasn't been seen of late.
In the past two years - the majority of one he missed by delaying knee surgery - Merriman shows but four sacks. Instead of being a disruptive, game-changing force on defense, Merriman has become a complementary player.
"We will not be building a defense around Shawne," Smith added. "Our hope was that he would become an integral part of our defense. Obviously he has a lot on his mind going into the season. He will have to work that out with his agent."
The Chargers have much to work out before kicking the season off Sept. 13 in Kansas City. They are minus their top pass-protector, top downfield threat, and top - in Merriman's mind - pass-rusher.
That's a lot to compensate for.
Merriman, though, figures to report sooner rather than later. That same can't be said for McNeill and Jackson.
In the recent past, Chargers training camps have been devoid of news and spirited competitions - a tribute to the success the team has enjoyed of late. But the early buzz for this camp is just as much about the players not here as the ones returning from a 13-3 team - one that capped its season with its third playoff loss in four postseason games.
CAMP CALENDAR: The first practice was Aug. 1. There will be practices in Qualcomm Stadium Aug. 4 and Aug. 7. Camp closes Aug. 23.
--Chargers president Dean Spanos was among those relieved that top pick Ryan Mathews is in camp. Mathews has some big cleats to fill in replacing future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson.
"We are excited to have Ryan here and ready to go," Spanos said. "Aside from his outstanding talents on the field, he's a class young man and the kind of player we're proud to add to our team."
--The nickel role has been one the Chargers have had trouble filling. Just maybe in newcomer Donald Strickland the Chargers finally have their man. The seven-year veteran signed this offseason after playing there with the New York Jets in 2009 and San Francisco, Philadelphia and Indianapolis before that.
"That's been my role the past four or five years and it's something I have a knack for," Strickland said. "You have to be a capable tackler and a coverage guy. It's a little bit safety and a little bit cornerback, which I believe suits my strengths."
--QB Philip Rivers annually shows up for training camp with his hair closely cropped. But it seems he went overboard this year. Let's just say he would fit in as a Marines Corps poster boy for his latest buzz cut. "We cut it at the house and my (daughters) sure got a kick out of it," Rivers said.
--CB Antoine Cason is comfortable with his early camp role of playing with the first string. "I came in to camp relaxed and ready to work," Cason said. "I know what I'm capable of doing, which makes me confident when I go out there and play. I feel comfortable out there right now, but I'm still working to get better."
--OL Brandyn Dombrowski started two games at right guard and seven at right tackle last season. But this season he has been plopped on the left side with tackle Marcus McNeill not in camp. And that is fine with Dombrowski.
"That's my natural side," Dombrowski said. "I feel more comfortable and that I can move better on the left, so I don't think the adjustment will be that big of a deal. I'm going to pour focus into my technique, especially the little things. I've learned that poor technique gets you beat on game day. I have to be perfect, or as close to perfect as I can be moving forward."
--SS Steve Gregory was on the sidelines but he became part of the play when Rivers overshot a receiver. "Hey Steve, head's up!" Rivers shouted as the ball sailed toward Gregory. He saw the ball at the last moment and made a nice catch.
-- Jets CB Antonio Cromartie, a former Charger, had this to say about his new training camp digs; his remark didn't go unnoticed by the Chargers. "Now this is training table food. Ribs, mustard greens, bake beans, and mac cheese. Man I love it." Cromartie was fined $2,500 last summer by the Chargers for criticizing the quality of the food they provided during training camp.
--Coach Norv Turner is a bit ticked about the constant talk about the players not at Chargers camp and what that means for the season. "We still get to play with 11 guys," Turner said.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's always about health in this game. The physical ability will still be there for me, because I didn't play college football and endure all the wear and tear that comes with it. That being said, I believe I'll play through this contract. But I don't want to be forced into retirement. I want to go out on my own terms, and no matter what, I'll make sure that happens." -- TE Antonio Gates on if he'll still be able to play at age 35, after his current contract extension reaches its end.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Little movement here with the big three: Marcus McNeill, Vincent Jackson and Shawne Merriman. They are restricted free agents and have yet to sign their tender offers.
But the Chargers did get RB Ryan Mathews in the fold thanks to a $25 million deal which includes $15 million in guaranteed money.
--LT Brandyn Dombrowski has been running with the first team. That development could mean that he's for now the first-stringer, as well as the team being cautious with wearing out 35-year-old Tra Thomas. Both are getting long looks with Marcus McNeill not reporting.
--CB Antoine Cason is getting the first shot at replacing Antonio Cromartie in the starting lineup. Cason, a former first-round pick, was unable to hold down the nickel role last year. Cromartie was peddled to the Jets in the offseason because of his lack of consistency and physical play.
--DT Ryon Bingham spent last season on injured reserve but has come back and been playing with the first unit. The Chargers are seeking a replacement for three-time Pro Bowler Jamal Williams; he left as a free agent for Denver. Williams played in but one game last year before getting hurt.
--The team released SS Kevin Ellison, a nine-game starter last year, before training camp. It did so because it was impressed with rookie Darrell Stuckey; Stuckey has been running with the first team.
--With Jackson absent, Malcom Floyd has moved into his spot. Floyd has a lanky build similar to Jackson, but not the downfield speed Jackson possesses, which keeps defenses honest.
EXPECTED BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Brandyn Dombrowski vs. Tra Thomas for the starting left tackle spot.
Dombrowski's stock rose significantly last season with the Chargers after the undrafted free agent filled in for Louis Vasquez at right guard and Jeromey Clary at right tackle. But can this unsung player take care of Philip Rivers' blind side? If not, does Thomas, entering his 13th year, have much left in his tank after contemplating retirement during the offseason? The Chargers season - if Marcus McNeill stays out for a lengthy period - could decide the Chargers' chances for success this year.
OTHER BATTLE FRONTS: Antoine Cason vs. Donald Strickland vs. Nathan Vasher for starting left cornerback spot.
Cason gets the first licks in here, but he is no means a shoe-in to replace Antonio Cromartie. The Chargers were reluctant to hand the job to Cason and they proved it when bringing in Strickland and Vasher, two veterans, as insurance policies.
ROOKIE REPORT: RB Ryan Mathews signed in time for the team's first workouts in pads after missing the first four sessions. ... ILB Donald Butler, a third-round selection, got some early work before the veterans reported; he could be seeing the field mostly on special teams. ... SS Darrell Stuckey, a fourth-round selection, is splitting duties on the first unit with Steve Gregory. ... DT Cam Thomas is getting a good grasp on the team's 3-4 alignment.
INJURY REPORT: The Chargers, in a nod to how early it is in camp, haven't sustained any injuries. All are working and the team has yet to rest anyone.
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